His name’s been kicking around for more than a week but the “likely” part is new.

NBC is hearing the same thing. Team O has been touting him for appointments since before The One was president, when Hagel was briefly rumored to be in the mix for VP. His name popped up again two years later as a potential successor to Dennis Blair as DNI. He’s sort of the perfect Obama appointee: He’s a centrist Republican, which burnishes O’s phony above-the-fray post-partisan image, and he’s known chiefly for harshly criticizing other Republicans, especially on Iraq. In fact, Hagel has the distinction of having voted for the initial invasion of Iraq and then later opposed the surge, which puts him squarely opposite the conventional wisdom on how well each of those ventures worked out. Nevertheless, I assume he’ll sail through the confirmation process. The Senate tends to go easy on its alums when they’re up for a cabinet post, and if anyone’s inclined to come after him for being insufficiently hawkish, the fact that he served with distinction in Vietnam will give him plenty of cover. (He and McCain are good friends so don’t expect static from the hawk-in-chief.)

His biggest problem will be answering questions about his past criticism of Israel. For Obama, that’s a feature, not a bug, but for other Democrats who have to worry about re-election, not so much. The Washington Free Beacon was on it last week:

“It would be a very unwise and disastrous choice for U.S. policies and activities regarding the Middle East,” said Morris Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)…

Hagel’s efforts to open up direct negotiations with Iran and its terrorist proxy Hamas have placed him at odds with the pro-Israel community and the majority of Congress.

His legislative record reads like an anti-Israel rap sheet, sources said.

Hagel has declined to sign multiple letters of support for the Jewish state and has balked when presented with opportunities to condemn Tehran’s efforts to enrich uranium near levels needed to produce a nuclear weapon.

The Beacon followed up this afternoon by noting that he’s a member of the board of Deutsche Bank America despite Deutsche Bank in Germany being under investigation for having possibly evaded sanctions on Iran. That won’t stop the Senate from confirming him, but all of the above should add some exciting new nuance to U.S./Israeli military cooperation in O’s second term under Secretary Hagel.

Exit question: What does this signal as far as Obama’s choice between Kerry and Susan Rice at State? Presumably O’s willing to risk only one “difficult” nomination next year; Rice would be difficult, Kerry would not, but what about Hagel? I think he’d actually be relatively easy, his views on Israel notwithstanding, partly because he’s an ex-senator and partly because he’s a Republican whose chief point of alienation from the party is a war that most of the public now thinks was a mistake. He’ll say all (or most) of the right things about Israel in his confirmation hearings and probably get 75 or so votes, which means Obama can then go to the mat on nominating Rice. He’ll have already thrown the Republicans a bone, supposedly, by nominating one of their own at Defense, which will help buy him the public’s benefit of the doubt about being “reasonable” when partisan war breaks out over Rice.

Update: I see that the left is grumbling on Twitter that nominating a Republican (or rather, another Republican) for Defense sends the message that the GOP is the party of national security, to the point where even Democratic presidents have to cross the aisle to find a suitable appointee at the Pentagon. I don’t buy it. For one thing, Panetta’s been there for awhile now; for another, O himself has been sufficiently hawkish — ostentatiously so in the case of Bin Laden and the drone campaign and Libya — that Romney’s supposed national-security advantage in the last election was completely neutralized at best. It’s not Bob Gates who’s most closely associated in the public’s mind with Obama’s counterterror successes, it’s Obama himself. The White House has taken great care to make sure of that, and they’ve succeeded. So, from a purely political standpoint, who cares whether it’s an R or D at Defense if it’s O in the White House?